19. Eddie Chuculate, Cheyenne Madonna.
A novel-in-stories about Jordan Coolwater, a Cherokee and Creek artist, and his Cheyenne wife, Lisa Old Bull. (Mostly Jordan, though.)
Two particular stand-outs are "A Famous Indian Artist" and "Dear Shorty". "A Famous Indian Artist" is about teenage Jordan's relationship with his uncle Johnson L. Freebird ("the famous Indian artist!" as Freebird would absolutely make sure you knew). The reader understands fairly quickly that Freebird is insecure, self-centered, possibly fronting about his success, and deliberately trashing his nephew's art and ambitions in an effort to build up his own self-image. Coolwater takes much, much longer to understand what his uncle is doing, but this is not a simple story of a boy's transition from lionization to disillusionment: there is also comprehension and compassion for his uncle, and trepidation for Coolwater's own, hoped-for future as a Famous Indian Artist himself. "Dear Shorty" is about Coolwater's relationship (or attempted relationship) with his alcoholic father, walking the line between non-judgment and ennabling, trying to single-handedly carry a relationship with a man who is not sober enough to remember who Jordan even is.
Of the seven stories, only one was weak: "Under the Red Star of Mars," which is from the POV of Lisa, and is about her leaving her abuser boyfriend and eventually meeting Jordan. Given how nuanced the other stories were, this one felt stiff, distant, and shallow. I've also got some language nitpicks with the first story, "Galveston Bay, 1826" -- I'm not a fan of using distinctively European plant names in a story set pre-colonization, and there's a bit about the protagonist meeting "another Indian" that seems similarly norm-flipped for the setting -- but minor language-picks are minor.
Overall: beautiful, nuanced, with lots of emotional depth. I'm definitely keeping an eye out for his next book.
20. Louise Erdrich, Shadow Tag.
Irene America is Ojibwe; a Ph.D. candidate; her Famous Indian Artist husband's primary, career-spanning and -defining model; mother of three; and a woman who keeps two diaries: one "private" diary, which she hides in the back of the filing cabinet knowing full well that her husband is reading it behind her back, and the truly-private diary, which she keeps in a safe-deposit box.
Her husband knows that she is keeping secrets from him, but assumes that the long, unexplained outings are visits to a secret lover. In actuality, Irene is making her long unexplained outings to the bank vault, to write in her diary.
Irene did have a lover once, and he remains a secret from Gil. In the story in her head, however, she is, and always has been, faithful to Gil. One afternoon with one of Gil's friends is an inconsequential blip and nothing more. I am more likely to consider the "private" diary, the one with lies fabricated for her husband's eyes, an act of failthlessness.
However, given the crap going on in their marriage, that they should end up here, with one spying on the other via a diary deliberately full of lies, does not surprise me at all.
This is a messy story about representations, stories, and how those representations are used to capture and control people, both intentionally and inadvertently. Gil's paintings of Irene; the public's ideas of Irene as read from Gil's paintings; the children's ideas of Irene as read from the paintings; the children's stories about their parents; the parents' stories about their children; George Catlin's paintings of Native people; "real" Indians and old-time Indians and unenrolled Indians and identity construction; the two diaries; even the novel itself.
I've been turning over the novel a fair bit since I finished reading it, but am hard-pressed to verbalize much. Especially since there's a major twist at the end that all but requires re-evaluation of most of what went before. (I'm still not sure what I make of that twist other than to say that I agree with Erdrich: omniscient objective narrators are a lie, and should always be questioned.) But for someone like myself who's been chewing on issues of stories and representations and the paradoxes therein, Shadow Tag was worth chewing on.
Trigger warning for familial and domestic abuse. For myself, I particularly liked this portrayal of familial abuse and dysfunction -- neither adult's hands are particularly clean, and Gil is that kind of befuddled, earnest, well-intentioned abuser who does not recognize that he is emotionally and physically abusive. "Sheer walking evil" abusers don't ping recognition for me; abusers who understand themselves to be loving family members -- and who often are loving, conscientious family members -- do ping for me.
(Additional tags: creek author, cherokee author, cherokee character, creek character, short stories; ojibwe author, ojibwe character; lit fic; native american)